As dawn breaks deep in the savannah of northern Kenya, Kuyaso Lokoloi quietly slips out of his hut clutching his mobile phone. He heads out stealthily into the bush.
Just a year ago, he would have been on the lookout for game to poach in the thick acacia scrub that makes up the remote Samburu district, a key reserve for the increasingly threatened African elephant.
Now, after risking death with armed wildlife rangers hunting him down, the poacher has turned gamekeeper and now goes out patrolling to protect the animals he once killed.
“At that time, I would have been better armed…whenever we saw an elephant in the bush we would stalk it, and then shoot it,” he says, pointing at a mock target with an imaginary rifle.
“I had a killer shot…I could put down a bull elephant with just one bullet.”
But over the
past months wildlife rangers, faced with a surge in elephant and rhino
killings, have been adopting a shoot-to-kill policy against suspected
“The life of a poacher was too lonely for
me… and leads only to death,” said Lokoloi, aged 25, who spent the
past decade as a poacher, killing his first elephant at the age of 15.
despite the potential of a huge pay day made from the sale of ivory by
poaching bosses, the illegal hunting did not bring him riches. Lokoloi
still lives in poverty in a mud hut with little to show from his hunting
“We always knew that we were being fleeced… but the middlemen were our only connection to the outside world,” Lokoloi said.
no way in hell I would have walked out of the bush with my ivory and
taken it to someone who might offer me more money.”
The little money he did get he used to support his mother and siblings.
he spends his mornings patrolling in the bush on the lookout for
poaching gangs. Joining Lokoloi on his patrols is 20-year-old Nicodemus
Sampeere, happily noting that in the past few months they have “saved a
few elephants already from direct danger from poachers, as well as those
caught in snares”.
But despite being one of the few people here to complete high school, Sampeere has lost hope of ever securing a paid job.
am among the few educated people in my community but I cannot get a job
even at the wildlife conservancies,” Sampeere said. “From childhood,
elders always tell us never to harm wild animals but what options for
survival do I have?”
Untrained and unpaid, they patrol
for two hours in the early morning and say they have already caught
several poachers. Once they’ve proved themselves, they hope to get jobs
with the local wildlife conservancies.
Benefits from tourism
call them whenever we encounter something out of place in the bush,”
Lokoloi says. “We are not paid for it, but we know that eventually the
benefits from tourism in the region will trickle down to us.”
District, which lies some 400 kilometres north of Nairobi is an
elephant belt boasting some of the largest herds of wild elephants in
the entire east African region.
Poaching has spiked
recently in Africa, with whole herds of elephants massacred for their
ivory. One kilogramme of ivory is currently estimated to be worth around
$2,000 (Sh170,000) in the Asian black market.
United Nations wildlife trade regulator, Cites, estimates at least
25,000 African elephants were massacred in 2011, with the death toll for
2012 expected to be as bad, if not worse.
“This is nothing short of a holocaust,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of conservation group Save the Elephants.
this rate, after 10 years, we will have no more elephant populations.
This is a problem bigger than Kenya … bigger than Africa. We cannot
end it because the causes are external and there is very little we can
do about it.”
In 2012, poachers in Kenya killed 385
elephants, a rise of a third from the previous year, when 289 were shot.
Lokoloi was responsible for at least one of those deaths, killing a
bull elephant in July.
But it was a dangerous game and
poachers did not emerge unscathed: at least 40 were killed – as well as
four government wildlife rangers – in bush battles last year.
international trade in elephant ivory, with rare exceptions, has been
outlawed since 1989 after elephant populations in Africa dropped from
millions in the mid-20th Century to 600,000 by the end of the 1980s.
total ban in ivory trade is the only thing that has been proven to
work, nothing else. We have tried having one-off sales, and our herds
are being decimated,” Douglas-Hamilton added.
illegal ivory trade is mostly fuelled by demand in Asia and the Middle
East, where elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are used to make
ornaments and in traditional medicine.
African nations are pushing for the legalisation of regulated ivory
sales, the prominent conservationist warns them that Kenya’s struggling
herds are a grim example of what they could soon face.
southern African countries should know one thing, the only thing
standing between poachers and their herds is our elephants,” he said.
“If they go, poachers will head south next en masse.”
poachers into gamekeepers helps protect the wildlife, but with little
money in the task and few employment opportunities elsewhere, there is
always the temptation to return.
Lokoloi, fresh back from his patrol, must head out searching for manual work in exchange for food for his family.
is hard, but I am determined to give back to a world I have taken so
much from,” said the former poacher, who gives his tally of elephants
killed only as “many”.
Courtesy of nation.co.ke